Dilapidated court buildings across England and Wales with problems such as leaking toilets and broken heating are contributing to a backlog of Crown Court cases, according to a new report published on Monday.
The Law Society of England and Wales polled more than 440 lawyers on whether court infrastructure was fit for purpose and found that the poor state of repair of court buildings was a contributor to the huge backlog of court cases – particularly in criminal cases.
The backlog of criminal cases in the crown courts increased from 41,045 in March 2020 to 62,517 at the end of September 2022, increasing waiting times for defendants, witnesses and victims. In the family courts, it now takes around 49 weeks to process custody cases.
The courts have been hit hard by government austerity measures imposed a decade ago – which saw funding cut by 24 per cent between 2010 and 2019 with 239 court closures in the past 12 years.
The Bar Association reported that two-thirds of respondents had experienced delays in cases heard in the past 12 months due to the physical condition of the courts – including cases canceled due to flooding, repairs, broken heating and a lack of judges.
In the report, a lawyer said of a London magistrates court: “The walls are falling in, tiles are falling off, the roof is leaking. Last year sewage got into the cells.” Another barrister describing a crown court in London said: “Everything is falling apart. Chairs and floor are held together with duct tape. Ceilings leak, toilets leak and fail to flush. Mold everywhere.”
Lubna Shuja, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said: “The poor condition of court buildings across England and Wales is both a contributor to the huge backlog of court cases and a stark illustration of the lack of investment in our justice system.”
The Bar Association has called on the government to invest further in buildings, hire more staff and judges and install more reliable technology.
The society’s conclusions are consistent with evidence given to MPs about the crumbling state of the courts by Lord Ian Burnett, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, who told the Parliamentary Justice Committee in November 2021 that “every winter we lose hearings because the heating has broken and there is a limit to how much you can expect people to sit in court in coats, beanies and gloves”.
Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the justice committee, said recently that typically 50 courtrooms across England and Wales were regularly out of use – about 14 per cent of crown court space, mainly due to poor maintenance.
The Bar Council, which represents lawyers, also said in a report published last month that some court buildings posed health and safety problems and highlighted a Welsh court that had flea infestations, a court that had sewage flowing down the walls and a court in London. where a lawyer had to conduct a hearing while holding an umbrella over his head because the roof was leaking.
The Ministry of Justice said: “Last year we announced the biggest increase in funding for the justice system in more than a decade, strengthening our commitment to ensuring it protects the public and supports victims.
“We have digitized a range of court services since 2016 and are investing £175 million in court maintenance to ensure they are fit for the 21st century,” it added.